Popular Massachusetts food label bill in committee as session winds down


BOSTON >> With weeks left before the Legislature wraps up formal sessions, supporters of a bill requiring labeling of genetically modified foods face an uphill battle in convincing House leaders to take up the measure.

Noting her uncertainty over the bill's future, sponsor Rep. Ellen Story told reporters Wednesday outside the State House that though she is "hopeful" it will be debated this year, House Speaker Robert DeLeo has not decided whether to bring it up for a vote.

"He's non-committal. I'm sorry to say," Story said at an event where advocates from the Massachusetts Coalition for GMO Labeling gathered.

Despite significant support from lawmakers, the Genetic Engineering Transparency Act (H 4156) remains in the House Committee on Ways and Means for consideration along with a plethora of other bills. The legislation before the committee is a redrafted version, recommended by the Legislature's Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture Committee, of a bill sponsored by Story and Rep. Todd Smola.

"We are behind the times. It's time for us to catch up with the many other societies that have decided it is reasonable to know what's in the food that we buy. But I don't know what the chances are. I'm very hopeful," the Amherst Democrat said when asked if she thought it would come to a vote before July 31 when formal legislative sessions wraps up and informal sessions begin for the remainder of 2016.

Unlike the initial bill which only required that New York adopt similar legislation before taking effect in Massachusetts, Story's office says the redrafted version requires that in addition to the Empire State, Rhode Island or New Hampshire must also establish similar language in order for it to be implemented. The redraft also omits a consumer protection component and makes changes to how the term genetically modified is defined, according to Story's office.

In her remarks, Story said she would prefer the older language of the bill, because it aligned better with Vermont, a state which has already weathered a legal challenge.

A federal circuit court upheld a Vermont law requiring mandatory GMO labeling, which will take effect next month, according to MASSPIRG, a member of the GMO labeling coalition.

"When you are the first to do something that has opposition from big business you're likely to be sued. And Vermont is being sued, she said. "The bill right now does not resemble Vermont's so if we pass it we'll have to change it so that it has the key ingredients that the Vermont bill has, which will protect us from a lawsuit."

Bill opponents believe a federal solution is best suited to resolve a labeling conflict rather than a patchwork of state laws. Opponents also say there is no scientific justification for labeling GMO products and argue that labeling could negatively affect businesses.

At Wednesday's press conference, activists showcased a shopping cart filled with food they say was purchased in Boston and included labels from manufacturers indicating that the food was partially produced with genetic engineering.

Deirdre Cummings, legislative director at MASSPIRG, said the examples prove that arguments made by opponents "just don't hold water."

"The GMO label we see here today did not raise prices. Food manufacturers did not refuse to distribute their product to consumers in Vermont. Nor is the label inflammatory or confusing for the consumer to read," Cummings said.

Smola, a Warren Republican said, "We're not trying to restrict choice for any consumer out there in the Commonwealth or anywhere else in the country. What we're trying to do is give them information so that they can make well informed decisions about the products they're going to buy for their families and they're going to consume."


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